(1+2) > 3: The Presence of the Number Three in Folktales
By: K. Sean Buvala
As storytelling has moved from its perceived position of folk art to more mainstream recognition, the inevitable attempts to classify, catalog, and define it have become more ambitious. Storytelling is now a subject one can “take” for college credit. Although I believe that learning storytelling in a focused environment is overall a positive area of growth for storytelling, along with these classroom opportunities comes the need to create and memorize definitions of the characteristics of different types of stories.
For many storytellers, educators, and folklorists, the classification of a “folktale” requires that it include some reference to the number or sets of three. Such stories as “Three Blind Mice,” “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” and “The Three Billy Goats Gruff” are common examples of the titles and subjects of basic folktales reflecting this concept. Although I do not believe that the classification of a story as a folktale should be limited by the “number three” requirement, such a requirement for classifications does elicit several questions. Why the focus on the use of the number three? What does the number three represent?
Finding a consensus as to the “reason” for using the number three is a challenge. Many familiar folktales told in the United States in classrooms and popular iconic culture, think of the epic Disney animations, have their roots in European folklore from collectors and authors such as the Grimm Brothers and Joseph Jacobs. Like many other choices for sacred numbers in various world cultures, the choice of the European use of the number three seems to have several possibilities. References to the symbolic use of the number three in Christianity abound and perhaps make the most commonly used explanations. A central tenant of Christianity is the concept of the Trinity, that is, the person of God is created by the presence of three persons within that God: the Creator, the Redeemer, and the Sanctifier or, more traditionally: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Other examples include Jesus being visited by three kings at his birth and three days in the tomb before his resurrection.
Other reasons for the prevalence of the number three in folktales include our need as human beings to create order from chaos. In storytelling, chaos results when players one and two attempt to succeed at a task but, through their failure or our moral shortcomings, are unable to complete that task. Then the third player, naturally more powerful than the first two, succeeds at the task, seeking the perfection of the story. Consider the familiar stories of “Cinderella” to illustrate this point: the evil stepsisters conspire against Cinderella. A more accurate depiction of this story would be the Irish Cinderella variant of “Fair, Brown, and Trembling,” where there is no “evil stepmother” to throw off the equation of two conspiring against one (Glassie 257). This explanation of the number three, in the world of storytelling, might be written as: (1+2) < 3.
Having a third option or character allows for a gray middle in a world of black-and-white extremes. The number three pierces the polarity of the points of one and two (Schneider 39). This third provides the balance of youngest to older and oldest, industrious to lazy and laziest, just right to too hard and too soft, and the option between yes and no. Psychologist Carl Jung offers another view of the power of three. He wrote, “Every tension of opposites culminates in a release, out of which comes the ‘third.’ In the third, the tension is resolved, and the lost unity is restored” (qtd in Schneider 38).
There is a fundamental problem with the use of sets of three in the litmus test of what is and what is not a folktale: not all cultures use three as a sacred number. There is an extensive range of numbers that are considered sacred. For example, it is common in Judaism and Christianity (with its roots in Judaism) that the number seven is sacred. The number seven appears in the Bible and the Torah more often than any other number. In such numerology, the number seven is venerated (Schneider 222). Some earth-centered societies, such as some Native American cultures, use four as a sacred number recognizing the innate nature of four in the four seasons and the four points of the compass. In Islam, the number five is holy. (Stewart).
The number three in stories and narratives is not limited to folktales of the century of the 1800s and previous. In the following “math joke,” there are two uses of the number three. Even in this modern story, three is represented in the presence of the three characters and three conclusions:
Three men are in a hot-air balloon. Soon, they find themselves lost in a canyon somewhere. One of the three men says, “I’ve got an idea. We can call for help in this canyon, and the echo will carry our voices far.” So he leans over the basket and yells out, “Helllloooooo! Where are we?” They then heard the echo several times. 15 minutes later, they hear this echoing voice: “Helllloooooo! You’re in a hot-air balloon!” One of the men says, “That must have been a mathematician.” Puzzled, one of the other men asks, “Why do you say that?” [the man replied] “For three reasons. (1) He took a long time to answer, (2) He was absolutely correct, and (3) his answer was absolutely useless.” (Melzer).
One of the challenges of teaching storytelling in an academic setting is the difficulty in defining “What is storytelling?” The number three is not common to all folktales of all cultures. However, when the number three is present, then there are a variety of reasons that the authors or collectors have chosen to use that number. These can range from possible religious connections to breaking the tensions of only two diverse and polarizing choices. Perhaps the authors of the “number three” folktales as well as the collective wisdom of the many ancestors who have passed on those tales, have always intended this to be the moral of folktales: see the two sides and find the truth in between those choices.
Transcending cultural issues, there is an actual number three in all storytelling. A story can not be complete without the triune presence of a beginning, middle, and end.
Glassie, Henry H. Irish Folktales. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.
Melzer Ingo. My Favorite Math Jokes. 6 November 1997. 30 June 2007. .
“Number Symbolism.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. 4 July 2007. .
Schneider, Michael S. A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe: The Mathematical Archetypes of Nature, Art, and Science. New York, NY: HarperCollins, 1994.
Stewart, Ian. “Numbers Symbolism, Part II: Numbers 1-5.” 10 April 2007. Britanica.com. 4 July 2007.
K. Sean Buvala is a storyteller, coach, and author living in Arizona. He’s been in the storytelling arts since 1986. The article was first published in 2007.
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